Transparency is not the same as communication

06 Feb 2015 Voices

Research earlier this week found no top-100 charity had complied with all of NCVO's proposals on pay transparency. David Ainsworth says the sector needs to do more to communicate with the public.

Research earlier this week found no top 100 charity had complied with all of NCVO's proposals on pay transparency. David Ainsworth says the sector needs to do more to communicate with the public.

Transparency in the charity sector is almost exactly unlike sex. Everybody talks about it, but nobody, it appears, wants to do it.

At least, that’s what research carried out by Civil Society News this week seems to suggest. We looked at whether any of the top 100 charities had followed the NCVO’s recommendations on reporting pay, a year after they were first published.

The answer was no, they hadn’t, not to the letter.

NCVO recommended that charities publish all of their senior executives’ pay within two clicks of their homepage on their website. But only three of the top 100 had their chief executive’s pay available within two clicks, and none had the whole senior team. Less than a third had the details in their annual reports, either.

The question is what this means, and why no one is following these recommendations. After all, if every charity has failed to do it, and there is a widespread resistance to moving even part of the way there, that suggests there are problems with the proposals.

Acevo’s chief executive, Sir Stephen Bubb, has taken a contrary position to NCVO, warning that the sector is in danger of falling into a “transparency trap” in which it constantly discloses more and more information. He points out that being transparent isn’t free, and suggests donors might want charities to spend their money on helping people, instead.

Increasingly it seems that there are two definite camps within the sector as a whole – those who think we need to be more accountable to the public, and those who feel the public aren’t interested in this stuff, and we’re wasting our time telling them.

(There is also a certain school of thought which says transparency may be a negative thing, because the main users of chief executive pay reports are chief executives, who use their peers’ remuneration to demand more pay themselves. But that’s a separate issue.)

Transparency is not just about pay

The transparency issue is not just limited to pay. There are also significant calls for charities to reveal how much of their funding comes from the government, and how much is spent on campaigning. Last year the Charity Commission tried to get that information included in the annual return. It backed down, but it also signalled that it would potentially have another try in the future.

There are periodic attacks on the sector from right-wing think tanks on these subjects, too, and earlier this week Ben Summerskill, the former chief executive of Stonewall, took to the Guardian to attack charities over their defensiveness when campaigning and funding came up in the press.

Part of that defensiveness is probably down to a weary knowledge that accurate information can be wilfully misunderstood by right-wing campaigners with an axe to grind. Part may well be down to the fact that it is irritating and time-consuming to reveal lots of information about yourself.

For the most part, it seems right that charities should be prepared to reveal information about their activities, because otherwise it appears that they have something to hide, and also because they are accountable to the public in a way that private companies are not. But there’s also no point in self-flagellatory revelation for the sake of it, because mostly it’s true that no one much does care about the detail of what charities do. It’s also true that there is a very definite monetary cost to publishing data about yourself.

What charities should definitely not do is follow the example of the government, and use the excuse of transparency to be totally opaque. We’ve all seen government use a legion of functionaries to spam the public with such a digital avalanche of information that they are wholly unable to pick out anything useful.

Data is not transparency

In short, data is not transparency, and transparency is not communication.

Charities are well run and efficient, on the whole. There are problems in the sector, but those are not the problems the public think.

If you read the nonsensical comments under every story about the sector in national newspapers, it appears the public think charities are funded almost entirely by small public donations, which are extracted from ordinary plebs on a daily basis by razor-sharp fundraising departments and then squandered by flabby, fat-cat back offices.

Granted, people who comment on newspaper stories are often a little unusual, but there is clearly still a job of work to communicate the truth.

So whether pay information is revealed or not is almost a secondary issue. The primary thing is explaining why you pay those amounts.

Charities don’t just need to provide the public with data. Nor is it enough to provide prominent and clearly-labelled data.

What charities need to do is provide the right data, and help the public understand what the data says and why. Only at this point is transparency successful, and useful.


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